What is Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes? Is it a remake? A reboot? A prequel? Or just another symptom of Hollywood’s crippling lack of originality?
In truth, it’s probably a little bit of all of them. Crucially, however, the film also happens to be one of the more accomplished, albeit slightly cynical blockbusters to land in multiplexes this summer.
Avoiding the mistakes of Tim Burton’s, frankly, appalling 2001 remake, this time 20th Century Fox has chosen a decidedly different approach to the property. Cherry-picking elements from the 1968 original Apes flick and splicing them with tropes taken from the subsequent sequels, this new film manages to cleverly set itself up as prequel, remake and reboot, all at the same time.
That said, none of this fancy franchise repositioning would matter a jot if the rationale underpinning the film weren’t rock solid. Luckily for Fox, it’s in this area that Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is at its strongest.
Rooting the film in the very real and emotive world of gene therapy, big pharmaceutical companies and animal testing gives the film potency, relevance and credibility, something lacking in most modern sci-fi pictures. If anything, these choices pushes the franchise into a slightly more George Romero-esque vein than the more epic scale of the original films.
However, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is most definitely not a Romero film and director Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist), along with editors Conrad Buff and Mark Goldblatt, cut it with a pace, efficiency and confidence that owes more to modern action movies than anything else. For the most part, this approach works, but there are occasions where the film would benefit from prioritizing character over rushing to the next plot point.
Certainly, in this cut of the film, while James Franco is perfectly serviceable as scientist, Will Rodman, his character is never anything other than perfunctory. Franco judges the tone of the material well and hits all the notes you’d expect, but you never fully invest in his character, because, well, there isn’t much to engage with.
More effective, though given far less screen time, is John Lithgow as Rodman’s Alzheimer’s-stricken father. Despite his relatively small role, it’s Lithgow, more than any other performer, who helps sell the interaction between man and ape in some genuinely subtle and tender moments.
Faring less well are David Oyelowo, as evil corporate head Jacobs, and Brian Cox as Landon, owner of a less than idyllic primate ‘sanctuary’. Their villainous roles are distinctly two-dimensional, although the actors are good enough (especially Cox) to at least imbue their scenes with some spark.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for either Tom Felton, as Landon’s ape-abusing son, Dodge, and Freida Pinto, who plays Rodman’s girlfriend, Caroline. Both are given very little to work with, but whereas Pinto seemingly disappears into the background, Felton decides to gives a rather more theatrical performance. While this might suit life at Hogwarts, here it just seems out of place.
However, when all’s said and done, no one comes to see a Planet Of The Apes movie for the quality of the human drama on show, so it falls to the real stars of the show, the genetically enhanced simians and their human-raised leader, Caesar, to deliver the goods. Thankfully, they do.
Magnificently performed by mo-cap king, Andy Serkis, Caesar and his kind are brought to life phenomenally by the team at WETA Digital, and occupy the screen in a far more vivid and substantial way than any of the human characters. Unfortunately, despite the quality of Serkis’ performance, some of the CG work is of variable quality and there’s definitely some stretching of credibility in terms of the apes’ movements and abilities in the final act.
But it’s that final act, heralded by the delivery of two key lines from earlier installments of the franchise, that lifts Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes out of the ‘merely okay’ and into the ‘actually quite good’ category.
Watching the apes finally giving humanity a severe bloody nose is wonderfully cathartic, while the final battle is both a well-executed set piece and an appropriate payoff to the groundwork laid earlier in the film.
In the final analysis, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is a brisk, effective and ultimately enjoyable B-movie, which honours the films that spawned it, while taking the series into some interesting, and potentially quite fertile new areas.
Ending on a tease for a potential sequel, it would seem that Fox is banking on this franchise becoming a regular fixture on the blockbuster calendar. On the evidence of this installment, it has every reason to be optimistic.